April 2, 2020
As waitresses go round here, Reina is good. She’s alert, she knows how to smile, and she doesn’t mix up the orders.
Once a week, I’m at the restaurant where she works, hanging out with friends for a couple of hours. Our group went elsewhere for a while, to somewhere run by one of our members; but that place closed in March, so we came back. The food is okay, we’re there for our own company anyway, and Reina still remembered our names.
I often wonder how we seem to people like her. She’s young enough that life might not have been very rough on her yet, but we must seem so privileged. Mexicans generally are remarkably tolerant toward the outsiders in their midst, but we must grate at times. Us older types don’t draw much opprobrium, but some of the younger ones, who seem to exist on indiscernible means, sometimes amuse and sometimes irritate my more conservative neighbours. The pretty children of wealthy Mexico City parents often sport elaborate tattoos as they come to “Mystical Tepoztlan” to search for the meaning of having grown up rich. A decent tattoo here costs weeks of Reina’s salary, but these wannabe hippie mystics can manage that. Most local people can’t.
The average wage for a waitress around here is 80 to 100 pesos a day, or five to six Canadian dollars. Wait staff need their tips, which are customarily around ten per cent. Sometimes people offer less; some of us leave more. My latest lunch bill, without any alcohol, was just under 200 pesos, or about what she could expect to take home after a whole day right now, tips included. I think she gets a free meal as part of her contract, but she can’t really afford to buy one in the place where she works.
This topic has been on my mind as businesses, restaurants included, start to close. As everyone here notes, it’s just not feasible for most Mexicans to stay home for a month or two. There’s no meaningful government assistance, and the economy largely functions on a just-enough-to-make-it basis. I’ve talked about this with friends, and we can’t understand how people survive. And as things get tighter in the next few weeks, I wonder how the folk here will feel about the expats among them.
Theoretically, as a person over 60, I’m under government orders to stay home until the end of April. But when this was announced, it was stated that there wouldn’t be any arrests or charges for older people found outside. It was a Mexican compromise: voluntary compulsion. Yesterday, with a friend, I went to the market in town to get some fresh food, and nobody even looked at us funny. They need customers, or they’ll starve.
While there, we decided to indulge in an ice cream (Mexican ice creams deserve a whole blog post), and sat in the grounds of the former Dominican convent, which is still undergoing repairs from the 2017 earthquake. After a short time, we heard a live band, which indicated a funeral was coming. Sure enough, the procession came in for a blessing, with maybe fifty people trailing the coffin, then headed down Avenida Revolucion to the cemetery. And we just gaped, like tourists. Social distancing doesn’t happen in a funeral procession.
It seemed intrusive to go too close to the funeral procession to take a photo, so I kept a distance. The metal structure serves for religious services while the main church is repaired.
From an epidemiological perspective (try saying that after a third tequila…), what people are still doing is disastrous. From an economic and a social one, it’s a whole different matter. And while I monitor every small cough in case it’s a symptom, I’m more concerned about what happens if and when everything actually closes, and people begin to get desperate. How will people like Reina make it? Will she resent her former customers because we still have our pensions or our social security, while she has nothing very much?
I hope my personal answer to the question is too pessimistic.